On April 15, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle brought to a close the tragic story of Noor Al-Maleki with the sentencing of her father, Faleh Hassan Al-Maleki, to 34 ½ years in prison. Judge Steinle, a respected jurist on all sides of the bench, made an uncharacteristically emotional statement to Faleh with his decision.
Although well intended, Judge Steinle's remarks ventured into many theological, cultural and social areas from which he should have steered clear. His comments only exacerbated the harm done by the jury with their conviction on the lesser charge of second-degree murder. Combined, these decisions are a significant blow to America's messaging against honor killings.
Judge Steinle is correct to state that the Quran says "nothing at all about carrying out vengeance in order to gain back honor in some way." He was still misguided to assert that it was not an honor killing.
The reasons are complicated, but there is profound import placed on family "honor" and, more importantly, on "shame" in some Muslim communities across America. The attention given to these tribal perceptions has great impact on the treatment of women within those communities. Shame and honor understood this way are a slippery slope of more pervasive cultural, social and, yes, religious mores that oppress women and cannot be ignored. Judge Steinle chose to ignore them. The jury sadly appears to have taken into account these mores as an excuse for Faleh's actions.
Although many are lauding this sentence as a "virtual" life sentence for Faleh, the sentence is only 16 years for the vicious murder of his daughter. This sends an enabling message. Faleh was motivated by the shame he felt his daughter's actions brought him. The Phoenix New Times reported that he told detectives, "If your house has got a fire (in) just part of the house, do we . . . let the house burn or (do) we try to stop the fire?" Noor Al-Maleki was the small "fire" he had been forced to extinguish.
From jail he told his wife, "The Iraqi honor is precious. . . . For an Iraqi, honor is the most valuable thing."
Noor Al-Maleki's actions were probably judged negatively within various circles of their Iraqi community. This communal shame is the root that leads to abuse, violence and, at times, honor killing. Our legal system had an opportunity to make an unequivocal statement against Faleh's mindset, but it fell short. For any Muslim defenders of the oppression of women, the verdict and sentencing sadly left many openings for apologetics.
Tragically Noor Al-Maleki's death is but the tip of the iceberg. We cannot deny that there are some Muslim women in our American society who are shunned for how they dress or behave. Physical and mental abuse are often used to force a girl to understand the consequences of shame. Honor killings in the West are only increasing because our communities have avoided any open discussion about the interplay of culture, tribalism, family, honor, shame and faith. The self-destruction of families like Al-Maleki's cannot be prevented when society enables such deep-seeded denial.
How many Noors do we need to lose before we begin to take some responsibility for reform against the cultural and theological ideologies that denigrate women? The jury should have convicted Faleh of first-degree murder. At sentencing, Judge Steinle should have made clear to the entire world that in the United States we do not tolerate or mitigate for shame or honor.
As someone obsessed with Islamic modernization, I had prayed that Faleh would feel the full force of the law and get a maximum sentence for first-degree murder - ideally the death penalty. But he did not.
The more lenient sentence will affect how honor killings are viewed in America, reinforcing a belief that these actions are understandable. That is in line with what would happen in Middle Eastern countries guided by fundamentalist interpretations of Shariah law, in which lip service is given to stopping the behavior, but light punishment is the law of the land.
It is my hope that they now openly embrace Noor's story and begin the dialogue that is necessary to reform the insular mindset among some Muslims that view women as inferior. In the aftermath of this case, we American-Muslims must make Noor Al-Maleki a beacon for change within the Muslim consciousness.